California: Thirty-Fifth District|
Rep. Maxine Waters (D)
Last Updated June 9, 1999
In April 1992, the corner of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles became for a moment the most famous intersection in America: the epicenter of the Los Angeles riot. This was not, as was commonly said, simply an outpouring of anger at the Rodney King verdict; if it were, there would have been rioting everywhere in the Los Angeles Basin, since few citizens agreed with the Simi Valley jury. It was rather, like the urban riots of the 1960s, a collection of criminal acts suddenly committed by people in the expectation that so many others would be doing the same thing that all would have impunity; and even so, the rioting this time clearly would have been stopped but for the dereliction of Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates, who had prepared no contingency plan and spent hours on his way to and from a political fundraiser as the rioting broke out. The definitive story is told by the brilliant reporter Lou Cannon in his book Official Negligence. The rioting stopped after some 36 hours once Governor Pete Wilson and President George Bush announced that 25,000 troops were being ordered to Los Angeles, eliminating potential rioters' expectation that they would not be punished.
The commitment of troops was much greater than in the big 1960s riots, and this riot ended far sooner. But in the meantime great damage was done. Most visible was the harm to individuals: black and Latino onlookers were killed and injured by rioters and law enforcement personnel; a white truck driver was viciously beaten at Florence and Normandie; Asian and Latino storeowners were singled out by black and Central American rioters and treated as oppressors, when in fact they were providing goods and services which no one else--for reasons later painfully apparent--was willing to provide. Even more harmful may be the damage to Los Angeles's civic culture. For in the riot's aftermath it was widely repeated that blacks were helpless victims of racism and poverty, when in fact most LA area blacks have moved upward economically and out geographically from the old South Central and Watts ghettos in the 27 years since the 1965 riot, and African-Americans are well-represented in LA and California politics.
Among those commenting most vociferously on the riot was Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose 35th Congressional District includes Florence and Normandie as well as much of the South Central and Watts corridors which formed California's first black-majority district 30 years ago. The 35th also includes the majority-black middle-income suburb of Inglewood, home of the Los Angeles Forum; Hawthorne, birthplace of the Beach Boys; and Gardena, with California's first licensed poker clubs at which some of the most cutthroat games in the country are played. Latinos have been moving for two decades into South Central and Watts, and in 1990 the 35th District was 43% Hispanic. Another 42% of its residents and a solid majority of its voters were black, and Waters seems to regard her constituency as essentially black, whatever the Census numbers. Waters came to California in 1961, worked in a garment factory and raised two children, got a sociology degree at California State University in Los Angeles and became an assistant Head Start teacher after the Watts riot of 1965. In 1976 she won a seat in the California Assembly. There she supported Willie Brown and passed minority, women's and tenants' rights laws, limits on police strip searches and a provision mandating divestiture of state pension funds from South Africa. She became a Democratic National Committeewoman in 1980 and Phil Burton consulted her on 1982 redistricting. When Augustus Hawkins retired in 1990 after 28 years in the House and 28 years in the California Assembly, Waters was the obvious choice for the seat and won it easily. She had already made a national name for herself as a vocal supporter of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and was probably the most prominent freshman in the 102d Congress.
Waters brings to her work a fury that is almost palpable, and an insistence that she will assert herself regardless of protocol, partly perhaps a result of anger but also a weapon she uses shrewdly and cynically to get both publicity and results. ''I don't have time to be polite,'' she says, beginning her career by getting herself included in a post-riot White House meeting with George Bush after learning of the meeting on a morning TV show. Sometimes she over-blusters: She missed the chance to demand a roll call for one of her amendments, which was beaten, because she was outside the House participating in a press conference.
The Los Angeles riot was occasion for both Waters' best and worst moments. She flew home immediately and roused the Department of Water and Power to restore water to the riot area, and was effective in gaining provisions to the post-riot emergency act that eventually made it through Congress and was signed into law. But she also over-emotionally claimed, ''Los Angeles is under siege … the violence could spill over to many other cities in this country.'' Which, of course, it didn't. And she made statements suggesting that the rioters were morally justified, that somehow street thugs were speaking for the black community instead of destroying it.
Waters comes from a poor background and believes with fervor in federal aid for the poor and for racial preferences to help blacks overcome years of slavery, segregation and discrimination; she favors drastic reductions in defense spending and was one of six members who voted against supporting the Gulf war once it started, asking how urban gang members could be expected to stop fighting when America's own leaders were waging battles.
But she has also produced specific legislation, including the Community Reinvestment Act racial quotas, a ''Youth Fair Chance Act'' with job training and counseling for unemployed young men 17 to 30, and a Center for Women Veterans within the Department of Veterans Affairs. She has worked for many set-asides for women and minorities. She was an early but unillusioned supporter of Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and traveled often with Clinton. At the 1992 Democratic convention, insisting that ''this is the last time I support an all-white anything,'' she said she would support the Democratic ticket in 2000 only if it has a black or a woman on it. Her husband, a former professional football player and Mercedes Benz salesman, became President Clinton's Ambassador to the Bahamas. Even so, she voted against the crime bill rule in August 1994 when the administration desperately needed votes, because she said she ''could not vote for a crime bill that sweepingly expands the death penalty to include sixty new crimes.'' In 1994 she protested Clinton's cutoff of Haitian refugees and was arrested at the gates of the White House. In 1996, again opposing Clinton, she denounced his signing of the welfare bill and called for a vast expansion of government spending and powers.
Waters finds unconventional ways to make news. In 1997, she pushed the theory, supported in a story in the San Jose Mercury News (which later cast doubt on it) but by little else, that the CIA had worked with Nicaraguan Contras to import crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles. ''When you understand the totality of the CIA connection, you can't help but conclude they were either directly involved in the trafficking or they turned a blind eye,'' she said. As chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, she promised a ''real war on drugs,'' an 800 line for complaints of discrimination and a business development initiative for minorities. Waters gained her greatest national publicity during the Judiciary Committee's Clinton impeachment inquiry, where she assailed ''trumped-up charges''; said that Clinton was ''guilty of being a populist leader who opened up government and access to the poor, to minorities, to women, and to the working class''; and termed Kenneth Starr ''guilty'' of ''raw, unmasked, unbridled hatred and meanness that drives this impeachment coup d'etat.'' Republicans not surprisingly tended to ignore her, some Democrats felt uncomfortable with her unvarnished defense, and Chairman Henry Hyde visibly sighed when she would, out of order, seek recognition to make another protest. But she helped to delegitimize the impeachment proceedings for many Americans, black and non-black, and she was undoubtedly acting with an eye to seeking advantage from the Clinton Administration later.
Waters has been re-elected without difficulty.
Safe. When Waters mounted her outspoken defense of President Clinton during the 1998 impeachment battle, she could do so with a clean political conscience, knowing that it would cause her no problems at home. This is solid Democratic territory.
- Pop. 1990: 570,697
7.8% age 65+;
- 21.4% White,
0.3% Amer. Indian,
42.2% Hispanic origin;
40.6% married couple families;
25.5% married couple fams. w. children;
35.3% college educ.;
median household income: $25,481;
per capita income: $9,761;
median gross rent: $518;
median house value: $150,500.
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